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Peter Ndebele was 4 years old when he was exiled from his native South Africa to Zimbabwe in 1977. At 18, he returned to his homeland and settled in the Hillbrow section of Johannesburg with nothing to his name. He slept in the street. He parked cars and washed taxis to earn money for bread.

Ndebele eventually landed at Hillbrow’s YMCA shelter, which held a large community of people uprooted by the political infighting and mob terror following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990. At the shelter, Ndebele got 25 young people together to form the MUKA (Most United Knowledgeable Artists) Project. They wrote a play, The Chain, weaving together their stories of gang war, rioting, and escape. They staged the play in shelters and churches—and, in 1996, at South Africa’s Windybrow Youth Drama Festival. They wanted to use the play to talk back to people—both blacks and whites—who, Ndebele recounts, “would pass us on the streets and look at us like we were pieces of stones.”

Ndebele’s passion smote Virginia Maubane, who fled to Hillbrow in 1993 after a mob burned down her home in Katlehomg township. In the midst of her despair, “Peter approached me and one of my girlfriends at a cafe,” she recalls. “He thought she was a famous South African actress and asked her to join MUKA. I couldn’t believe his confidence! We both joined.”

D.C. playwright Roy Barber met Ndebele, Maubane, and the members of MUKA last summer while in Hillbrow researching his new musical Gift. Barber’s musical involves an itinerant Johannesburg boy who becomes a writer for a newspaper run by homeless people. MUKA crucially influenced Barber’s production. “They showed me the importance of having the community tell the story” in the form of a chorus, Barber says. The chorus tells the story largely through Zulu a cappella harmonies and chants—some somber, others joyous—accompanied by percussive foot stomping.

Barber helped bring MUKA to Washington in May to perform Gift, which opens Sunday at Source Theatre, directed by Dorothy Neumann and employing several D.C.-area cast members. MUKA’s members will return to South Africa at the end of July to start work on a new play. Back in Hillbrow, they also plan to inaugurate dressmaking classes for homeless young girls in vice’s way. Before I met MUKA, I wasn’t going to do anything,” Maubane says. “The group saved me.”—Jessica Barrow Dawson

The Gift runs July 12-15 at 8 p.m. at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, as part of the 18th annual Washington Theater Festival. For more information, call (202) 462-1073; for tickets call (202) 884-0060.